To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…(1 Peter 5:1,2).
In the gospels, Peter is often portrayed as a tough, sometimes impetuous, leader of men. If you needed protection; if you wanted to beef up your personal security; if, in a tense environment, you anticipated things getting rough, then Peter was the guy you wanted in your corner.
Among the early apostles, Peter was regarded among the churches as a super-apostle. The advantage he had over the Apostle Paul, was that during the 3-year ministry of Jesus, Peter had been one of His closest earthly friends.
And yet like most of us, Peter was multi-dimensional. R.C. Sproul calls him “a thundering paradox of a man”.
He was one of the three that the Lord Jesus most depended on for intercessory prayer while in the Garden of Gethsemane – and yet he struggled time and again with drowsiness in the face of certain, imminent peril.
He was the only one to attack – however misguided his swordplay – when Jesus was about to be arrested; but within a few hours, he had denied his Lord three times, even in response to questioning by a child.
I suspect the memory of that night, and of his less-than-stellar performance when His Lord was experiencing those excruciating hours of weighty, overbearing spiritual, physical, and psychological tyranny, was a burden he bore daily for the rest of his life. It was likely a primary source of the big fisherman’s humility.
Peter was one of the most privileged characters in all the Bible, having witnessed first-hand the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, multiple healings, and the Resurrection.
And when he was martyred under Nero in the mid-60s – crucified upside down – the 1st century church lost a colossal spiritual figure.
He is portrayed in the gospels as a natural and sometimes brash, leader. And yet his description of the work of local church elders shows sensitivity and a deep well of spiritual maturity and experience.
Notice that rather than pulling apostolic rank as he was entitled, Peter appeals rather as a fellow elder. The ESV translates v.1: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ”.
Then the Apostle builds on his instructions to elders with this exhortation:“shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (the NKJV uses the term “overseers”), not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you…” (v.2, ESV).
In these 2 verses, Peter has used 3 common Greek terms that help define the role and job description of spiritual leaders in the local church:
- elder (Gk presbuteros) in v.1 – someone older, wiser, experienced.
- shepherd/pastor (Gk poimaino) in v.2 – a shepherd who feeds, protects, leads.
- overseer, or bishop in the KJV (Gk episkopeo) also in v.2 – a supervisor; often used in a military context of a general inspecting his troops to ensure they are properly resourced and battle-ready.
Peter uses a phrase in verse 1 that is not to be missed: “the elders among you”. This wording reminds us of the principle of leadership plurality which seems to be the norm among New Testament churches – multiple elders functioning together to provide direction and guidance.
And it draws attention to the positioning of the elders among the flock – and leading from within, not installed above and ruling over the flock of God’s people in the local church.
Peter continues in verse 3:“not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock”.
The concept here is what is often called “servant leadership”, a term that has been in vogue among management gurus since the term was coined over 60 years ago.
The concept is demonstrated by one who serves others by leading them; or, who leads by serving. However, leaders must also possess the strength to warn, to confront sin, and to make unpopular decisions.
The ultimate example of servant-leadership is the Lord Jesus.
And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (v.4). Peter here reminds every local elder that he is only an under-shepherd. The sheep belong to Christ; He is the One who died for them, and whose eternal possession they are.
Takeaway: I’m convinced the New Testament assumes every believer is a part of a local Body; that is the context in which their spiritual gifts are to serve others. The current trend of “free agent Christians” who connect in multiple churches, really connect in none – at least as the depth of that connection is defined in the Scriptures.
And when in fellowship in a local Body, every believer is to be protected from false teaching, to receive biblical feeding, and to experience an environment conducive to spiritual health.
That’s the explicit desire of the Good Shepherd as He delegates to under-shepherds: local church elders who labour at spiritual oversight, and the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.